Democracies are notoriously slow in responding to danger. They dither and dawdle until an advancing peril is not only at the door but ringing the bell. When they finally get around to it, however, democracies can mobilize quickly, efficiently and carry the day.
The Orwellian tendencies of electronic technology, particularly the Internet, have long been evident to a few. Their early warnings were ignored by a public fixated on the next shiny new thing from Silicon Valley and the euphoric hype emanating from the industry and its boosters. But now we are having second thoughts. We are asking questions about the dark side of the electronic future. We are not sure whether this future will include democracy.
True, the western political systems, although called democracies, are combinations of political democracy and economic oligarchy. They could be described as systems where the many have the vote and the few have the money. The citizens of a quasi-democracy, however, especially need accurate facts and information in order to retain the modest political power they possess.
From Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in the 15th century to the computer and the Internet of today, technology has been improving the means of disseminating information to ever-larger audiences. Throughout this history powerful individuals and institutions have tried to control the information communicated — the content of the information and those who have access to it. To control the dissemination of information is to control what people know, learn and think. Thought control is not only a perk of power but a vital means of holding on to it.
If Gutenberg’s printing press created the modern world, what world will the computer and the Internet create? How will electronic technology affect democracy and the constitutional rights and freedoms which we take for granted but which history warns us are rare and brief?
Can Democracy and Electronic Technology co-exist?
Printing and the Internet are radically different media. They have different histories, tendencies and social effects. The Internet processes and disseminates information through gatekeepers, these enormously wealthy and powerful companies that have dictated the terms of Internet commerce, especially social media. Its users leave tracks in the form of data. Describing the Internet as a web suggests a spider at the center, as does its product, Spidergram, the surveillance chart. The spider owns the web and the insects caught in it.
The electronic infrastructure is a physical construction, it is like the pipes and storage tanks of, say, a municipal water system or the cables and wires of a telephone exchange. The computer and the Internet have become essentials of modern life; they are now a perquisite of citizenship and civilization itself. Not to have access to the electronic world is to be denied participation in one's society. It is a form of deprivation, like being without indoor plumbing, a telephone or television.
In short, the Internet now provides an essential public service. It has become a utility. Access to utilities is a democratic human right.
Electronic technology, however, was not invented to bolster either democracy or constitutional rights. The investigative reporter Yasha Levine reminds us in his book Surveillance Valley that the Internet was developed by the American military in the aftermath of World War II. The Cold War was heating up, fear of Communists was everywhere, including in the United States, The military wanted new technology in order to spy on foreign governments and subversive U.S. citizens. The military wanted to find out what people all over the world were thinking and doing. The rationale as usual was national security.
The Internet took years to develop at the cost of many billions of dollars. American taxpayers paid this cost through contracts approved by the U.S. Congress. The Government took on the role of venture capitalist, and taxpayers have deep pockets. Under Capitalism, if you own the apple tree, you also own the apples the tree produces. And if you finance the development of a thing, you own the thing developed. So the American public ended up owning the Internet, right? Wrong! The public was not even aware that the Internet was being privatized. The Government did it on the sly. The beneficiaries of taxpayer largesse included IBM, MIT and AT&T; also several new companies which the Government founded as privatization vehicles for the new technology. These companies are now the darlings of Wall Street.
The Surveillance State
Marshall McLuhan gave us a metaphor for the electronically connected world of the future: global village. In a small community, everyone knows everyone and lives are an open book. Neighbors know whose bathroom light switched on at 3 A.M. and who does not show up at church. Secrets are few. Everyone lives in fear of the mythical gossip-monger, Mrs. Grundy.
But what if Mrs. Grundy were a government agency equipped with the latest see-all, hear-all snoop technology? Or a global Internet-based corporation with nearly 3 billion users that is creating the digital technology to track, manipulate and monetize its users?
In East Berlin there is a small museum devoted to life as it was when East Germany was part of the Soviet empire and controlled by the Stasi. A German film, The Lives of Others, depicts the personal and social costs of living in a surveillance society, where the Government uses your deepest, most personal secrets to dominate and manipulate you. But electronic technology infinitely multiplies the surveillance power that the Stasi had then.
Jean-Louis Gassée, former Apple computer executive, describes the social media platform Facebook as a “surveillance machine.” These giant platforms know what you like, think, watch, where you go, which church, restaurants and clubs you frequent – they know you better than your spouse or therapist. Should society continue to allow this noxious “surveillance capitalism”? It seems clear that the dangers of this spying outweigh any alleged benefits, such as hyper-targeted advertising that supposedly caters to our individual desires. The surveillance state is on a collision course with democracy. We cannot have both.
Is Democracy Necessary?
We humans did not evolve in democracies. Our instincts, habits and moral sense were formed over eons in small authoritarian hierarchies organized from the top down. This is the kind of society most of the world’s people live in today. Democracy is an acquired taste.
The Global Village now emerging is composed of billions of inhabitants, a community of strangers electronically connected. This new electronic world in theory is value-free. The Internet has no cultural, racial, sexual, religious or political bias. It is a machine to which Krantzberg’s First Law of Technology applies: “Technology is neither good nor bad. Neither is it neutral.” In other words, technology is inseparable from the human beings who designed it and make use of it.
Yet will these surveillance technologies still seem neutral when the Global Village encompasses the entire planet? Today’s world is only partially connected. Westerners who value privacy and can afford it may still flee to big cities like New York, London or Paris. But most of the world’s billions live in villages under repressive governments. They have never experienced the privacy which the Industrial Revolution gave to the West and which the electronic revolution now threatens to take away. Privacy, like Democracy, may be an acquired taste but once acquired it is hard to give up.
How will privacy fare when big cities, small towns, rural farmsteads, trailer parks and homeless camps all over the world are all connected by electronic technology? When your cell phone monitors you 24 hours a day, street cameras photograph you as you pass by? When Facial Recognition technology identifies your unique visage from caches of official photographs, going back to when you were a kid in camp?
The Global Village will have no privacy, no place to escape Big Brother.
For social media companies like Facebook, Google, Instagram and Twitter, surveillance is their reason for existing. Scooping up your most intimate data to sell to advertisers is their “surveillance capitalism” business model, the source of their profits and their founders’ wealth. The U.S. Government developed the Internet to surveil. Why, then, are we surprised that the Internet is being used, by both governments and corporations, for the purpose for which it was explicitly designed?
There are several other social problems that are emerging in our Internet-based society. One is anonymity. Anonymity is the other side of the coin from privacy. Users may conceal their identity or assume any identity they choose. Imagine the Internet as a masked ball to which the entire world is invited. People in masks behave differently from those with open faces. Bad actors have abused the Internet’s anonymity to spread misinformation, conspiracies, harassment and worse. This is a sensitive problem, particularly for Americans, because the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects anonymous writing and speech.
A second looming problem is how people will earn a living when Artificial Intelligence and its robot offspring finish the job the Newcomen engine began, namely, substituting technology for the labor power of human beings? In the mid-17th century, the Newcomen engine, the first steam engine, was set to work draining water from English copper mines. We do not know the fate of the 500 men who previously did that job with buckets. Were they deployed in other jobs or did they attack the Newcomen engine like the Luddites did the power loom when it destroyed their elite crafts in the textile industry?
A third problem is who owns all this data? The individual who provides it or the company that collects it? Our answer to this question will determine the future of democracy in the electronic age. Did the Stasi “own” the information its agents collected from spying on East German citizens? It certainly made use of it! But thieves make use of the property they steal. Ownership is legal possession. What is the legal status of spying? Do people as individuals own their personal information, i.e., is it intellectual property? Does selling data without permission of its owner constitute theft?
These concerns are not theoretical. They are already affecting our economic and political lives. And they will be addressed, but not solved, by governments and the courts.
Might these problems have technical solutions that could align them with democracy?
The hackers, cyberpunks and other romantics — the pioneers of electronic technology before the government took over — believed that they were working for the common good. They were anti-authoritarian peaceniks, spiritual siblings of those who had opposed the Vietnam War. They were dedicated non-conformists and philosophical anarchists who believed that the best government was none or that which governed least. They dismissed society’s power hierarchies as “The Man.” So how did these free spirits end up working for their anathema?
What would the Internet pioneers — those free spirits who disdained both The Man and the military — think of the Internet as it exists today? Might their second-generation descendants find a way to reinvent the Internet so that it serves a democratic society? Is it possible to rescue our democracy from the Surveillance State?
Democracies are notoriously slow in responding to danger. But when they finally get around to it, democracies can mobilize quickly and efficiently. Democracy can carry the day.
Crossposted with permission from DemocracySOS